Two and a half years after the events that sparked its creation, the official Charlottesville Police Civilian Review Board held its first meeting on Monday. National events have led to increased scrutiny of police departments, and so the inaugural meeting of this body dedicated to police oversight was highly anticipated (to the extent that any municipal government meeting can be).
Beginning in 2018, an initial, city-appointed CRB spent a year researching community oversight of policing, and proposed an ordinance and bylaws that would create a powerful permanent oversight board. In 2019, City Council voted through a revised set of rules that weakened the board in a variety of ways, including centralizing power with an executive director, removing the requirement that the police department attend community listening sessions, removing the ability for the CRB to review complaints that are sustained by the police department, and limiting the board’s access to raw stop-and-frisk and use of force data.
Then, in January, three new city councilors took office. Since then, community activists have lobbied for City Council to revisit the initial ordinance and bylaws, noting that all these councilors promised on the campaign trail to support the initial CRB.
City council has repeatedly kicked the can down the road, refusing to re-vote on the initial bylaws until the new, more permanent board members took their seats. “What we’ve said all along is that the new board members can tell us how they function best,” explained Mayor Walker at a City Council meeting in early June.
Now, the new board members are in place, and they’ve told council what they want. On Monday the board voted unanimously to adopt the initial bylaws (although there was debate over how much input city council would have in that decision). “The community spoke through the initial board by saying they wanted a very strong CRB,” said Nancy Carpenter, a member of the new board.
Harold Folley, Walt Heinecke, and Elizabeth Stark, community members who have advocated for the adoption of the initial bylaws, all spoke during the public comment in support of the new board’s desire to revert to the original bylaws. Rosia Parker and Sarah Burke, members of the initial CRB, also voiced their support.
Watson, noticing that Police Chief RaShall Brackey was on the call, asked if Brackney would like to comment on the proceedings. The Chief did not express any particular viewpoint on the actions of the board when handed the mic. “I’m here to just listen like everyone else to see what the interests of the board are and how we can all move forward,” Brackney said.
In a 2019 interview with C-VILLE, Brackney said, “I’ve never been able to understand or get a clear answer as to why there was the development of a Civilian Review Board here.”
Local civil rights attorney Jeff Fogel noted in public comment that the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus plans to introduce legislation at the state level that would institute civilian review boards around the commonwealth. If the caucus’ legislation makes it through the all-blue state government, the CRB could find itself with more power than even the initial bylaws provide.
These dry-sounding municipal decisions have real human stakes: Dorenda Johnson, a lifelong Charlottesville resident and member of the new board, spoke about the importance of a powerful body when she introduced herself.
“I have such a strong passion for it because I have two sons that are young, African-American sons,” Johnson said. “With all that’s going on across the nation, I see that there is a dire need for this to be in place.”